Generation of Novelty in Complex Systems

Novelty and innovation are essential attributes for the continued success of ecological, social and other complex systems, both natural and anthropogenic. Without them, dynamic, adaptive change in response to disturbance is not possible. Novelty and innovation are required to keep existing complex systems resilient and adaptable, and to create new structures and interactions following catastrophic ecological or social failures. The importance of novelty is recognized in the management and business world, but is less explicitly recognized and appreciated in the scientific world.

Novelty refers to new “products,” things or ideas that are generated through innovation, the process whereby novelty is created. Novelty and innovation are characteristic of dynamic systems—systems that are alive and changing—and are generated at multiple levels. For example, in biological systems, novelty is generated at the genetic level through random processes of mutation, at the species level through evolution and natural selection, at the community level as a result of regrouping of species combinations, and at the ecosystem level as a result of changes in key processes and interactions. Novelty is being constantly created, and extinguished. By generating potential solutions in advance of need, solutions may be readily available when problems arise.

 Novelty can be either local or global. Locally novel additions are unique to that particular system, but may exist and originate from elsewhere. For example, when a species invades an ecosystem, novelty is added to that system. The invasive species is new to that system, but the species itself is not a novel or new life-form. On the other hand, globally novel additions had no prior existence. They are new not only to the particular system within which they are generated or added, but are globally unique. Speciation in an ecological system represents the addition of global novelty.

Without innovation and novelty, systems may become stagnant. Having a constant source of innovation and novelty is clearly important for systems, both following transformations and during their normal dynamics. However, novelty may be a destructive force as well. Invasive species, for example, can alter basic process and structure in ecosystems and be a source for decline or collapse. Cellular mutations can have obviously destructive consequences upon individuals and lineages—cancer is a prime example. Thus, innovation and novelty can be a double-edged sword. In ecosystems, for example, novelty in the form of new species has been a cause of major extinctions, but is also the prime source for recovery.


To explore the causes and consequences of the generation of novelty and innovation for humans, for social systems and for ecological systems, we convened a small diverse group of researchers from diverse disciplines, with a variety of approaches and backgrounds, where we believe a deliberate focus on the concept of novelty could be fruitful. Our overall intent was to identify commonalities across disciplines. What attributes of a system are necessary if novelty is to arise? What might be the consequences, both positive and negative, of systems structured to permit novelty and innovation?

Current Status

In March, 2019, we held a workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska, to discuss these and other ideas and questions. The workshop brought together about a dozen scientists, representing neurosciences and resilience theory.  A manuscript focused on the idea of convergence is being developed from this meeting.

Principal Investigator(s)
-Craig R. Allen

Post-Doctoral Associate
Shana Sundstrom, Ph.D. (2017)

Project Duration
January 2013- December 2019

-James S. McDonnell Foundation

Project Location